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An Interview with M.R. Carey

Infinity is Only the Beginning

The Pandominion: a political and trading alliance of a million worlds. Except that they’re really just one world, Earth, in many different realities. And when an A.I. threat arises that could destroy everything the Pandominion has built, they’ll eradicate it by whatever means necessary.

Scientist Hadiz Tambuwal is looking for a solution to her own Earth’s environmental collapse when she stumbles across the secret of inter-dimensional travel, a secret that could save everyone on her dying planet. It leads her into the middle of a war on a scale she never dreamed of. And she needs to choose a side before every reality pays the price.

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M.R. (Mike) Carey is the critically acclaimed author of over sixteen novels, including the USA Today bestseller The Girl with All the Gifts, which was adapted into a feature film starring Sennia Nanua and Glenn Close. Carey is also a prolific comic book writer for both D.C. and Marvel, including highly praised stints for the Marvel flagship series X-Men and Fantastic Four.

Carey’s latest novel is Infinity Gate, an action-packed multiverse sci-fi and the first entry in his new Pandominion series. We recently crossed paths in the same universe with Carey to bring you this interview on his new multiverse series and more.

Thank you for taking the time to do this interview with Grimdark Magazine. The multiverse has been popularized in a wide variety of books and movies, especially in recent years. How did you develop your unique take on the multiverse in Infinity Gate and your Pandominion series?

[MRC] I think one of the starting points was a short video Derek Muller did on his Veritasium Youtube channel. It was an explanation of the Schroedinger’s Cat thought experiment that brought in quantum entanglement and the many worlds hypothesis and it was mind-bending in a very good way. He was basically arguing that when you open the box you don’t collapse the wave form you just become entangled with that system – so now there are two versions of you, one where you find the cat alive and one where you find it dead.

I started thinking about how you might try to map a reality that keeps splitting like that, and I ended up doing a crazy little doodle that became a schematic diagram of the Pandominion, the multiversal empire from Infinity Gate. The story grew out of the map, which is an awkward thing for me to admit. I generally hate novels that have maps at the front. Well, except for The Lord Of the Rings. And Earthsea. And Naomi Novik’s Scholomance books. Actually, I guess it depends on the map.

Much of the action in Infinity Gate occurs in Lagos, in both the Nigeria of our own world and in parallel worlds that have experienced very different evolutionary and political histories. It is a joy to follow your protagonist, Dr. Hadiz Tambuwal, as she makes the most important discovery in modern physics. Could you tell us about how you chose Lagos as the focal point for the novel and how you developed Hadiz as a character? More broadly, what do you think should be done to help improve diverse representation across the sci-fi genre?

[MRC] That’s a very big question. And taking the last part of it first, you can’t have diverse fictions unless you have diverse writers. So I guess if you’re a publisher the first thing you do is publish diverse voices. Which probably means you need to make sure that your gatekeepers, your commissioning editors, form as diverse a team as you can get. If they’re all from the same background then with the best will in the world they’re probably not going to be able to build you a list that’s as wide in terms of its cultural reference points as you would want.

At which point I have to point out the obvious, which is that I’m as white as the paper I write on. So why Lagos? I think the short answer is because Britain. Because I come from a country that was one of the world’s biggest imperial powers and at its height ruled over almost a quarter of the world’s land area and a quarter of the world’s population. And there are still people in the UK who are nostalgic for that power, for the status we used to have on the world stage. There are still people who whitewash what we did and try to argue that the British empire was a force for good.

Infinity Gate is partly a story about empire, so it made sense to me to choose a setting that gives the lie to that nostalgic imperial myth. The British weren’t in control in Nigeria for very long – just a decade in fact – but we did a lot of damage in that time and we left a poisonous legacy. Arguably the military coups and the ruinous civil war that followed British rule were a direct result of the structures we misguidedly built before we left. I’m thinking especially of the imbalances we deliberately created when we divided the country up into three sized regions with very unequal representation in the national assembly.

It was a lot to take on, and I was more than a little afraid that I might not be up to the job. I read a lot of histories and a fair amount of Nigerian fiction, but that will only take you so far. I also had the temerity to ask Tade Thomson if he knew anyone who might be willing to give the book a sensitivity read when it was finished. With incredible generosity Tade offered to take on that task himself, and his advice was invaluable throughout. I’m not saying there are no egregious errors in the book, but the ones that are there are all mine and they’re there in spite of Tade’s help. Really, I couldn’t have done it without him.

And that extends to the characters, especially Hadiz. I had a vivid sense of her from very early on, but Tade’s feedback helped me to locate her in a cultural landscape. In some ways – for example her relative isolation from her extended family – she stands some way out of the mainstream of Nigerian culture. But I think that’s okay. There are always cross-currents in these things and no culture is a monolithic bloc. And Hadiz is a character defined by extremes. I like that she’s at the end of the bell curve in so many ways.

Infinity Gate does an excellent job considering the intertwining political and economic implications a multiverse that has a potentially limitless supply of natural resources. How did you work through these political and economic aspects of worldbuilding?

[MRC] Well thank you, that’s kind of you to say. That was one of the starting points, really. So many of our world’s problems are problems that come back to scarcity or unequal distribution. And in a wider sense the logic of capitalism depends on endless growth, which is obviously impossible in a finite world. But what happens if the limits are removed and the available resources are infinite? Do you automatically have benevolence and wealth equality? No, of course you don’t. You just shift your mechanisms of control to accommodate the changed circumstances. Because control is really the point, for any system of government, and it becomes its own rationale for anything and everything.

Infinity Gate is (more than) universal in scope, but it feels very personal in the relationships that it portrays between people and AI, where the roles of AI include professional assistant, personal friend, and arch enemy posing an existential threat to organic life. How do you see these various roles of AI evolving in our world? Do you anticipate a situation where AI would qualify for personhood?

[MRC] I was reading an article on exactly this topic a few weeks back. A journalist circulated a questionnaire to cyberneticists – people who are training the current generation of AIs. The key question was: can an AI trained only on text ever reach true sentience? The answers split more or less 50/50. Half said yes, half said no. And these are the experts, the people who are refining ChatGPT and MidJourney and all those other systems. They don’t know. So I think it’s fair to say that we, humans in the aggregate, have no clue what we’re making right now.

And the answer might always be that – a shrug or a coin-toss. The Turing test has fallen by the wayside and we didn’t even see it go. Over the next few years we’re going to see AIs that can innovate, that can solve complex problems in real time more efficiently than most people. We’re also going to have AIs training AIs, taking the whole process even further out of our direct control. We’ll be interacting with AIs whose responses are hugely, wholly indicative of sentience. And it will come down to an abstract argument about the algorithms they’re running. To use the words of a character in Infinity Gate, do they think or do they only think they think? It’s going to matter a lot, very soon, and there won’t be any agreement. There’ll only be best guess.

One of the main protagonists in Infinity Gate is Paz, who hails from an alternate Earth where rabbits have become the dominant sentient species. How did you decide on rabbits instead of a different type of animal?

[MRC] I wanted Paz to be a herbivore, someone peaceable and civilized and very easy to underestimate. I like the idea of a culture built on rabbit values, on the importance of the burrow and on running away from danger. I also liked the idea of taking someone from that culture and revealing her inner bad-ass. Some of my favourite scenes were the ones where Paz was up against the wall and she took charge in unexpected ways. She was crazy fun to write.

You are particularly adept at introducing complex scientific concepts in a manner that is easily accessible for the reader. What was your approach for conveying these topics in such a natural fashion?

[MRC] Again, thanks! I did it because I had to. There are a lot of points in the story where scientific concepts are part of the story engine, so I had to find ways of dramatizing them – of making them compelling on the page. A lot of it comes down to point of view. When Hadiz discovers Step travel we’re seeing it through her eyes, as a puzzle she urgently needs to solve – a personal crisis that could be the key to her world’s deliverance. So the stakes are high and the abstract (I hope) becomes that bit more concrete. We need to know what Hadiz has found and what she’s going to do with it.

There’s a similar thing in the second book with the Robust Rebuke, the Pandominion’s doomsday device. We’re with the scientists who are researching the thing and the bureaucrats who will decide how it’s used – and we’re seeing what the potential consequences are for organic life across the whole multiverse. The focus is on the implementation of scientific discoveries in fraught, imperfect societies.

What were some of your inspirations for Infinity Gate outside of the multiverse subgenre?

[MRC] I think it’s a space opera as much as it’s an alternate worlds story, so it’s got that in its DNA. The first “clash of mighty spacefaring empires” story I read, way back in the late 60s, was the Lensman series by E.E.Smith, which was enthralling and deeply questionable in about equal measures. I suspect it’s lurking there in the middle distance. And maybe Watership Down is too. I had to get my rabbit epic mode from somewhere. Generally though, I think the writer is the last person to ask about their influences. Everything you read gets mulched down into a substrate and most of the time you don’t even know what you’re stealing from.

The ending of Infinity Gate left us eager to see what happens next. Is there anything you can share about the next installment of the Pandominion series? How many books are planned in total?

[MRC] Only two – although I might go back in to tell other stories. Echo Of Worlds wraps up the story of the Ansurrection war and the unidentified narrator’s journey towards sentience. It brings the Mother Mass onstage, and it drags back at least one character who we were probably happy to think was dead. Oh, and it gives Dulcie a new shell. Those are all the spoilers I want to give right now. But the general aim was to tell a single story across two books – about 300,000 words, which felt too short for a trilogy but too big for one huge tome.

The Girl with All the Gifts translated beautifully to the big screen while remaining faithful to the source material. Was there any pressure to diverge from the original story? What is it like to see your stories on television or the big screen?

[MRC] Well in the case of The Girl With All the Gifts it was wonderful. That whole experience remains one of the most amazing things that’s ever happened to me. It was also one of the strangest, because I was working on the novel and the screenplay at the same time. I was totally immersed in that world.

And then when we started the shoot I was invited on-set, which felt like a huge privilege. I got to meet the actors, to see the movie taking shape, even in a few cases to do some last-minute dialogue tweaks. A movie has a much longer gestation period than a novel, so some of the later scenes in the film represented second thoughts I’d had after handing in the last draft of the novel. That’s particularly true of the final confrontation between Melanie and Dr Caldwell. In the book Caldwell just dies at that point. In the movie she’s made to confront her own mistakes first, and I think that works better.

We did diverge from the novel, but it wasn’t because of external pressures. It was because novels aren’t movies. When you adapt, you use the toolkit that works in the new medium. So for example we ditched the multiple points of view and stayed with Melanie throughout. We discover her world through her eyes, which felt like the right call in such a very visual medium.

I am a longtime fan of your graphic novels and have been reading your work since HellblazerLucifer, and The Unwritten. Is creating a story for a comic or graphic novel completely different than creating one for a full-length novel? 

[MRC] Yeah, very different. Comics are unique in that they’re serialized narratives crafted in real time. When you’re working on an ongoing comic series you’ve got a general sense of where you’re aiming for but you’re crafting it as you go, one little piece at a time. That leads to a strange combination of planning and serendipity. A lot of things get drawn into the mix that you didn’t foresee when you were going in. An example of that would be the character of Gaudium in Lucifer – or Mr Bun in The Unwritten. In both cases we had a character we thought was kind of a single serving, with Gaudium having a messenger function and Mr Bun coming to a horrific end in a done-in-one short. But then I got fascinated with the characters and kept revisiting them. I blame Peter Gross for that. He made them live and breathe, and I couldn’t ignore them after that.

Did your career as an educator help you when you transitioned to comic writing? 

[MRC] Only in the sense that I was used to working very long hours without a break. Teaching was hard. In term-time you’d basically work every evening and most weekends. In theory you had non-contact time during the working day, but in practice whenever you weren’t teaching you were usually in meetings or covering for sick colleagues . It was full-on. So evenings and weekends were when you did marking and lesson prep, and it never really stopped. I loved teaching, but nothing I’ve done since has been remotely as hard as that.

Shelly Bond, my editor on Lucifer, said you could usually tell the writers who’d done the 9 to 5 from the ones that hadn’t. It didn’t really matter what the job was, it was just the nose-to-the-grindstone mentality. In that sense it helped. It gave me a useful mind-set.

You wrote The House of War and Witness with your wife Linda and daughter Louise as co-writers. How did you handle working together as a team? Did you split off sections? Or, discuss everything as a whole?

[MRC] A bit of both. We did all the planning together, over a very long period of time. We might never have got to the actual writing if we hadn’t unexpectedly got the book commissioned. Once that happened we started writing sample passages to get the narrative voice right, trying to triangulate on a style that worked for all three of us. And then we divided up the story more or less along character lines. Each of us had characters we really wanted to write and we sort of took charge of those. It worked surprisingly well, but it took three times as long as it would have done if any of the three of us had been working alone!

It was great, though. It was one of those experiences that changes you, even more than you know. Coming out of that collaboration I was in a very different place – and I immediately wrote The Girl With All the Gifts, which I think is very much inflected by the fact that I’d just spent two years co-writing with two women.

How do you choose when to write under M.R. Carey versus Mike Carey? 

[MRC] Well M.R.Carey was kind of an accident. The idea was to publish The Girl With All the Gifts under a pseudonym, but to make it an obvious, transparent pseudonym – like with Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks. And the thinking behind that was all about initial orders. My editors at Orbit felt that GIRL had the potential to reach a much wider audience than the Castor novels, and they thought it would help to just put up a discreet little screen door between them. And I have to admit that it worked. GIRL sold really strongly. Which then meant that going forward Orbit were much more interested in publishing M.R.Carey than Mike. All my prose work since has been by M.R. My comics work is by Mike because I’ve never been anyone else in that context. And when I do screenwriting I toss a coin.

 Do you think that you will revisit the world of Felix Castor?

[MRC] I just did! After years of saying I was going to go back in and wrap that story up, I have a Castor Novella coming out from Subterranean very shortly. It’s called The Ghost In Bone, and although it doesn’t resolve everything that’s still pending in Castor’s world it does bring us back to the big mystery of why the dead began to rise when they did and why that tide of resurrection seems to be changing as we watch. So it brings the big resolution one step closer.

What other projects are you currently working on beyond the Pandominion series?

[MRC] I’ve gone back into comics recently after a hiatus of a few years. I’ve done a couple of shorts for Bad Idea and I’m working on a miniseries with them. I’m also doing a book for Comixology. And I’ve got a couple of movie projects in progress with Colm McCarthy and Camille Gatin, the director and producer of The Girl With All the Gifts – one of which is an adaptation of the Neil Gaiman graphic novel Violent Cases. That’s been insane amounts of fun to work on.

And there’s one more novel in the works, tentatively called I Will Tell You Seven, which is a take on the Seven Samurai if the seven were all undead monsters of one sort or another.

After that I might take a day or two off.

Original Interview Here

Interview by John C. Mauro and Beth Tabler

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